Big Jim hates me. I can tell by the way his upper lip curls, his nostrils flare, and his ears flatten against the back of his head every time I come near him.
“Steady, boy.” I approach him timidly, my hand reaching to stroke his soft nose. He snorts and throws his head up out of my reach.
“For heaven’s sake, take hold of his bridle. He won’t bite!” my dad yells.
Dad is wrong. Big Jim bit me once. His large grinders didn’t come into contact with my skin, but the sleeve of my shirt showed proof that they had connected.
I take a deep breath, gather my courage, and firmly grasp his bridle. His hot breath fans my shoulder as I fix my eyes on the end of the long row and give the bridle a tug. Big Jim’s eyes glare in defiance, but he strains against the plow Dad is guiding behind him. Then, as if wanting to finish the task early, he breaks into a trot.
“Whoa!” Dad yells. “Slow down! Can’t you control him any better than that?”
I grit my teeth in determination and apply a steady backward pressure on the bridle. Big Jim’s tail whisks forward to swat at a fly, but I’m convinced he’s trying to hit me. I jump sideways out of the way of his lash, and the furrow follows.
“Don, when are you going to learn not to be afraid of him? If your brother Dick weren’t sick, I’d let him lead the horse.”
Tears sting my eyes. “Sorry, Dad.” I guide Big Jim to straighten the row.
I’m not Don. My name is Donna, but Dad calls me “Don.” He wanted a boy, but he got me first, and he didn’t get a son until four years later. Instead of helping, I disappoint him.
We almost finish plowing the garden. Almost. As we turn to plow the last row, Big Jim sees Mr. McConnell’s horse Sissy in the nearby pasture. She holds her arched tail high and whinnies. Big Jim neighs an answering call, and with one eager shake of his head, he breaks loose from my timorous grip and gallops toward her. I watch in horror as Dad tries to keep up, pulling back on the reins, cursing at Big Jim and running with giant leaps through the loosened soil. He gives up after a hundred feet and stands watching as the plow bounces behind Big Jim. A piece of the plow falls off every time it hits the ground.
Dad’s face is red and angry. The field is not ready to plant. He doesn’t have the money to buy another plow. With resolute steps he walks over to Big Jim, picks up the long reins, and brings them down across the horse’s rump. Big Jim rears and screams.
Tears stream down my face as I turn and run. Not to the house, but to my quiet spot in the woods. There I sit on a log beside the little pool that has formed from the gentle stream of water flowing from the spring up the hill. Spots of sun dance in the soft leaves on the ground and form a mosaic of light that soothes me. I don’t know how long I sit there, thinking, praying to God that Dad won’t be angry at me. It must be past lunch time, and I realize Mom will need me to help with chores. I head for home.
“Your dad left early for work,” Mom informs me when I walk into the kitchen. “He’s going to stop at the hardware store. Maybe he can get another plow on time.”
I nod. Dad won’t be home from work until after I’m in bed.
“Grab a bite to eat. Then I need you to help with the laundry.”
“Okay, Mom.” I cut a slab off the homemade loaf of bread, spread it with peanut butter, and pour a glass of milk. I eat hurriedly and join Mom in sorting clothes.
“What happened wasn’t your fault,” Mom reassures me as we work. “Big Jim always has been ornery. Must be because he’s a Quarter Horse. I don’t know why your dad expects you to hold him. You’re only twelve.”
I smile. “Mom, I’d like to have a horse like Sissy. I wish she were ours. She’s so pretty, and I could train her to compete in the rodeo.”
She sighs. “Honey, we’ll never afford an expensive Thoroughbred like Sissy. Mr. McConnell is paying us to keep her until he has her pasture fenced. The money for keeping Sissy will buy that new plow.”
“I know.” The tears in the corners of my eyes are still pushing to get out, and I turn away.
Mom puts her arm around me and looks into my face. I see tears in her eyes. “We are so much alike,” she says.
I realize she is correct, and I laugh. I tell her I love her and give her a hug, and for the rest of the day, life seems brighter.
Dad makes an announcement next day at lunch. “I’ve decided to sell Big Jim. He’s not much use to me, and Jim Graves over on Ernest Ridge wants to train him for riding in the rodeo.”
I stare at my plate, my heart pounding. I’m glad to see Big Jim go. I look up at my father. “Dad, if you sell Big Jim, who’s going to pull the plow?”
I gasp, and Dad laughs, his usual, deep chuckle when he’s pleased. It’s good to hear, especially when I have been tiptoeing around him all morning, afraid to talk to him.
“With the money I get from Big Jim, I hope to buy a new workhorse,” Dad explains. “One that has some sense.” He glances at the clock on the dining room wall. “Better get dressed for work.”
I help Mom with the dishes, then head out to my quiet spot. The cool, shady trees beckon, and I settle down on my log seat. I sit there daydreaming of owning a horse like Sissy.
An unearthly scream breaks my peace. It comes from down the stream, a place in the woods where the stream meets a rushing creek that tumbles over moss-covered, slippery rocks. Another scream, the frantic, pain-filled voice of a horse in trouble.
I run with all my strength, down the bank into the opening formed by the convergence of waters. Big Jim and Sissy lie in a tangled heap in the rushing water. I can’t help them, not by myself. I head for the house on legs propelled by urgency and get there as Dad is climbing into his truck to go to work.
“Dad, the horses! They’re down in the creek. Bring your truck and some rope!”
He sees the panic in my face. “I’ve got rope. Get in!” he yells.
My hands grasp the handle on the truck door and I pull myself in. He throws the truck into gear, and we bounce down the dirt road that goes halfway to the creek. Jumping out, we race down the hill to the creek. Big Jim is lying in the foot-deep water, a small fallen tree across his back and neck. He can’t move. Sissy lies half submerged, her legs and tail under Big Jim’s rump, her head entangled in the branches of the sapling.
Big Jim’s eyes are filled with terror as he struggles to free himself. Racing against time, we bend and break branches to release Sissy’s head from the grip of the tree. What probably takes five minutes seems like an hour. Dad ties the rope around her neck and pulls. With one giant heave, Sissy is on her front legs, then out from under Big Jim. He slips lower into the water, and I hear gurgling. Big Jim’s head is under water.
“Big Jim!” I scream. Forgetting my fear, I leap into the water, wrap my arms around his head, and lift it above the water. He snorts, and white foam comes out of his nose and mouth. He is struggling, but I can tell he is growing weak. He is still pinned and can’t move.
“I think Sissy is fine. A few small cuts and scrapes, but fine.” Dad’s is focused on Sissy, who is out of the creek and tied to a tree.
“Big Jim’s not!” I yell, drawing his attention. My arms are aching from the weight of his head, but I can’t let go. Big Jim’s panting has slowed down, and he has stopped struggling.
Dad grabs the trunk of the tree, and with all his strength gives a mighty yank. The tree slides off Big Jim, its branches stinging my face and back as it goes.
“Get up, you stupid horse.” Dad slaps Big Jim on the rump, and he stumbles onto his feet. Dad glares at him while he ties another rope around Big Jim’s neck and hands it to me. “Well, I’m late for work, but we saved the horses.” He turns his back to me and heads up the hill with Sissy in tow. “Thanks for your help, Don.”
Satisfaction soaks into my soul as I lead Big Jim up the hill toward the barn. Dad praised me, something he doesn’t do often. I walk, holding onto Big Jim’s bridle. He follows meekly, too worn out for orneriness. Or maybe he trusts me. His nose rubs against my shoulder. Bubbles and slime drip from those wide nostrils and slide down my arm, but I don’t care.
“Let’s put them in the barn, Don. I don’t have time to fix the fence.” Dad hands Sissy’s rope to my brother Dick, who has come out of the house. “Put her in her stall.”
I put new hay in Big Jim’s manger and clean out his stall. Grabbing a pail, I fill it with clean water. He just stands there as I rub him down and talk to him. When I am sure he is as comfortable as I can make him, I go to the house to help Mom.
“Your dad was proud of the way you helped,” she says. “If we’d lost Sissy…” Mom shakes her head. “I just don’t know.”
The next morning, I get up early to do my chores. I usually spend extra time with Sissy, combing her mane and high-spirited tail. This morning I start with Big Jim. He stands there, his head held low and limp. The hay in his manger is all there, just like I left it. Loose straw floats on top of the water in the bucket. He hasn’t taken any food or water since I put him in the stall.
I run to the house. “Dad!” I shout as I rush through the door. He’s standing in the kitchen, talking to Mom. “Dad, Big Jim isn’t eating.”
“I know, Don. I put in a call to Doc Turner, and he’s on his way. Go finish your chores. I fixed the fence, and you can put Sissy to pasture, but leave Big Jim in the barn.”
I brush Sissy quickly. She whinnies, but Big Jim doesn’t answer. I let her out to pasture. Then I have an idea. Inside the barn is a bag of horse food, dry pellets laced with molasses. Dad sometimes gives it to them for a treat. I fill the metal dipper halfway and pour it into a bucket, then put it under his nose. He sniffs it, then moves his head away. I notice that his eyes are weeping huge tears that run down the sides of his head and stain his dark brown chestnut hair black.
“Come on, you’ve got to eat,” I coax as I take hold of his bridle and move his nose back to the bucket. He blows softly, and strings of slimy water hang out his nostrils and touch the floor.
Doc Turner arrives. “I reckon Big Jim got some water in his lungs,” Doc says as he examines him. “I’m going to give him a shot of antibiotics and some extra vitamins. That should perk him up.” He administers the shot in Big Jim’s rump and gives him a pat. “Call me if he doesn’t eat by tomorrow morning.”
The next morning, Dad is in Big Jim’s stall when I get to the barn. He shakes his head.
“You going to call Doc Turner?” I ask.
“I suppose. Gets to the point where Doc costs more than the horse is worth.”
I go up to Big Jim’s head. His languid eyes meet mine, and he lifts his nose to sniff me. My heart goes out to him. “He’s worth it to me,” I say quietly. Then I leave to tend to Sissy. The small scrapes she suffered in her fall hardly show.
Mr. McConnell’s red horse trailer is in front of our barn when I finish combing her. Will Dad tell him what happened? Outside, they stand beside the trailer and talk so quietly that I can’t hear what they’re saying.
“Bring Sissy out, she’s going home,” Dad yells.
I lead her out of the barn. Her roan coat gleams in the sun, her head arches high, and her tail sways as her dainty feet pick their way through the small rocks in the soil. My heart fills with an ache as I realize I may never see her again.
Mr. McConnell smiles as I hand Sissy over to him. “Thank you, young lady. I can tell you took good care of her.”
My eyes meet Dad’s eyes, but they give no hint. “I’d love to have a horse like her, Mr. McConnell. She’s so beautiful.” I give her shoulder a last stroke and go back into the barn.
Big Jim is lying down. It’s not a good sign. I grab his bridle and pull. “Up, boy.” Slowly he rises, first on his front legs, and when I give him a little pat on the rump, on his hind legs.
Doc Turner walks in. He looks him over, then shakes his head. “He should be eating,” he says gravely. “I’ll give him another shot and hope that does the trick. In the meantime, I’m going to take a sample of this drool and run some tests.”
“How much will that cost?” Dad asks. “I’m not rich, you know.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Doc packs his bag. “Keep him on his feet and let me know if there’s a change.” I can tell Dad is not reassured.
The next morning, Doc Turner is back. “I looked at the slides, and there’s something going on here I’m not familiar with,” he informs us. “I want to take another sample and send it up to the university. Is he eating yet?”
I know he can tell he isn’t, but I shake my head anyway.
“He’s getting dehydrated,” Doc says. “I’m going to start an IV and get some fluids in him.” I hold Big Jim’s head. He jerks only slightly as Doc inserts the needles and attaches the line.
“How long will that take?” Dad asks.
“About twenty minutes.”
“No, the tests.”
“A couple days, maybe three.”
Dad frowns. They step outside to talk, but I stay with Big Jim. I run my fingers gently over the white streak between his eyes. I talk to him as I put some fresh straw in his manger. “You’ve got to get well, boy. How is Dad going to buy another horse if he doesn’t have you to sell?”
In the morning Dad is at Big Jim’s side when I arrive. I can tell by his face the news isn’t good. “He’s down again, and I can’t get him up,” Dad says.
I go to the front of the stall. Big Jim’s head lies listlessly on the floor. His sides heave and his throat rumbles with every breath. My eyes meet Dad’s, and they plead for him to do something, anything.
“I called Doc Turner, but McConnell had an emergency with one of his horses, and he was there. He’ll be here as soon as he can.”
Doc doesn’t come until after lunch. By then Big Jim’s eyes are closed and he barely moves. Doc puts a wide leather strap around his middle. He hangs a hoist from a rafter and attaches a large hook to the strap, then begins to work the ratchet on the hoist. The strap tightens and pulls on Big Jim. He struggles. I watch as the strap lifts his sagging body. He is almost on his feet when snap! The strap breaks, and Big Jim sinks to the floor with a thud.
“I’m going to get another strap,” Doc says. Dad walks him to his truck.
Big Jim’s head is on the floor. I grab a clean rag, dip it in the water bucket, and squeeze it out over his mouth. He doesn’t even try to drink the trickle of water with his tongue. It runs out the other side of his mouth and down his jaw to his neck. I put some horse food pellets in his mouth. They catch on his large teeth, then roll out to the floor. I stroke his nose and sing to him, but he doesn’t open his eyes.
Doc is back. “Your father went to work, said he couldn’t afford to miss,” he says. He slides another strap under Big Jim’s midsection and attaches it to the hoist. This time it works, and Big Jim is almost standing. But I can tell he isn’t putting any weight on his hooves. His sides move in and out, and he breathes hard.
Doc is inserting another IV needle, and this time, Big Jim doesn’t even jerk. “Antibiotics, nutrients, and fluids,” he says. “I can’t promise anything.”
I nod and sit down next to the horse. No use to say anything, so I don’t.
All afternoon I sit beside him, talking to him and stroking his neck. I wanted to conquer him, but not like this. I feel a bond with this once strong and willful horse. In a way, I am like him, always doing impetuous and daring things.
Mom calls me, and I reluctantly leave. We eat dinner and do the dishes. I grab an old blanket, then run to the barn. I wrap the blanket around my shoulders and curl up beside Big Jim. I doze, and the next thing I hear is my father’s voice.
“Go to bed, Don. No use in staying here.”
Big Jim is gone. Numbly I walk to the house and throw myself on my bed, not bothering to take off my shoes or my clothes. I hurt so much inside I can’t even cry. Questions echo in my mind. Why? Why did Big Jim have to die? Why couldn’t Doc Turner save him? Why couldn’t I do more?
Eventually, I drift into sleep, but not a deep sleep. I am once again holding his bridle, leading him down a not-so-straight furrow. I can feel his hot breath on my neck and feel the sting of his tail.
When I wake, bright sunlight is streaming through my bedroom window. I can hear birds singing and voices, and I jump up to look outside. Doc Turner’s truck is in front of the barn, and he and Dad are talking.
I run into the kitchen. Mom is doing breakfast dishes, and she stops long enough to give me a hug.
“Why is Doc Turner here?” I ask.
“The university vet is a friend of his,” she explains. “He wants Big Jim’s body for the veterinary interns to learn on.”
Waves of anger flow through me. “Why can’t we just bury him here on the farm, out in the fields he loved?” Long pent-up tears break loose, and I sob out the words. “I don’t want him cut up.”
Mom’s strong arms surround me. “Honey, the university is willing to pay for the body and Doc Turner has agreed to take that as payment from your dad. We can’t afford not to give them Big Jim.”
I run out the door crying to my quiet pool refuge. By the time I get there, I am only sniffling. I sit on my log and stare at the sunlight dancing through the trees onto the top of the water. It makes sense, and it’s the right thing to do for Dad. He spent a lot of money trying to make Big Jim well. I am glad I can’t see Doc Turner take Big Jim away.
All next year is hard. I am haunted by nightmares of Big Jim. I can’t go near his stall without crying. I think Dad and Mom notice my pain, but they have their own problems. Dad doesn’t have a plow or a work horse, so he has to buy corn for the pigs and cattle. He saves every possible penny. Instead of new school clothes, Dick and I settle for hand-me-downs from our cousins. We have plenty to eat, but nothing extra for fun or for the holidays. Winter is longer and colder than usual, and it is the end of April before I see the first robin.
The first week of May, Dad brings home a new plow. We all stand around it, admiring its shiny steel blade and smooth red handles. Best of all, Dad is able to pay for it. A week later, Nellie arrives. Her coat is shiny black. She is not as large as Big Jim, and when I go up to her, she nuzzles my shoulder with her soft black nose. I reach up and take her bridle, and she follows my lead obediently.
Dad smiles. “I think she likes you. This weekend we’ll try her out on the plow.”
“I’m not afraid of her, Dad.”
“I know. You’ve grown up a lot this last year, Don. I’m proud of you.” He, Mom, and Dick walk slowly to the house and leave me to turn Nellie loose in the pasture. Happy to be free, she runs the circle of the fence, then returns to me and whinnies. I pull up a clump of red clover and hold it out to her, and she eats it from my hand.
Summer is almost over when a red horse trailer pulls up to our barn. Mr. McConnell’s red horse trailer. Inside it is the prettiest little filly I’ve ever seen.
“You want us to pasture her for a while, Mr. McConnell?” I ask breathlessly.
“Maybe longer than a little while.” A broad smile covers his face, and he winks at Dad. “How long can you take care of her, young lady?”
I look at him, unsure what to say. “As long as you need me to.”
“Well, does she remind you of someone?”
I gasp. She holds her head and tail high like Sissy did, but she is chestnut brown with a white blaze on her forehead. “She looks like Big Jim. He was her daddy, right? And Sissy her mother?”
He laughs. “That’s right. I can’t race her, and I can’t use her for a broodmare, so I figured I’d give her to you. If you want her, that is.”
My head is spinning, and my eyes beseech my father.
“You can have her, Don. You’ve earned her.” Dad opens the trailer, and Mr. McConnell leads her out. She nips at my shoulder. I laugh. “Just like Big Jim, Dad. I can really tell who her daddy is.”
Tears run down my face as I thank Mr. McConnell, but they are tears of joy. I hug my new horse’s neck and turn her loose in the pasture, and I don’t notice when Mr. McConnell and Dad leave.